Foreign students are saving America’s universities, but they’re mostly men

Save me a seat.
Save me a seat.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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For universities who took a hit during the recession, foreign students are a boon. Last year, new foreign students spent $15.5 billion on a US education—back in 2008, they’d contributed about a third of the amount.

New analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that their throngs are growing. Enrollment of foreign students in American universities has jumped 104% since 2008, while college enrollment overall has barely grown. (The Pew Research Center classifies foreign students as those with F-1 visas, the most common type of foreign student visa, who are newly enrolled in a US university or college.)

It’s not a coincidence that foreign enrollment is swelling as state budgets for education are shrinking—analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that there is a strong link between a change in state appropriations for university funding and enrollment of students from outside the US. Today, tuition makes up close to 50% of public colleges’ revenue, far above its contribution at the start of the recession (35.8%).  So, the most resource-strapped public universities are accepting more foreign students to make up for the shortfall.

Foreign students are more likely to be accepted into bachelor’s and master’s programs at public and private institutions, programs that are moneymakers for colleges. Master’s programs are unlikely to offer financial aid, and complement the 2-3 year undergraduate programs popular at non-American universities. Undergrad tends to be more generous with loan support, but it’s rare that foreign students qualify.

But who, exactly, are these foreign students?

They’re mostly from China and India

In 2016, the bulk of foreign students pursuing a higher education were from three countries: China, India, and South Korea.

These resource-rich countries with budding youth populations weathered the crisis better than Europe and the US. Now their young not only want a high-quality, foreign education—many can afford it.

The majority are men

The ranks of foreign students coming to the US may have surged—but they’re more likely to be men than women.

The gender gap among foreign students has also widened over time: In 2004, 14,000 more men from outside the US enrolled in American colleges than women. By 2016, that number was more than 50,000, and the growth in male enrollment over the period was higher.

But this trend may soon end—the Institute of International Education reported that 10,000 fewer foreign students joined a US university in the 2016-17 school year. Why? Students surveyed were worried about the “uncertain US social and political climate.”